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Donika Kelly reads the Natasha Trethewey poem, "Torna Atrás".

Donika Kelly:

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Hi. My name is Donika Kelly, and today I am reading Natasha Trethewey's "Torna Atrás" from her collection, Thrall. I chose this poem because it is one of my favorites from this particular collection. I was introduced to Natasha when I was a graduate student - to Natasha's work when I was a graduate student. I don't know, many years ago. (Laughs) And I read Native Guard, and I thought this book was perfect. It's so clear, it's so straightforward, but also there's tension, and so much skill and craft and energy. And from that moment I was a huge fan.

Torna Atrás

After De Albina y Español, Nace Torna Atrás (From Albino and Spaniard, a Return-Backwards Is Born), anonymous c. 1785-1790

The unknown artist has rendered the father a painter and so we see him at his work: painting a portrait of his wife — their dark child watching nearby, a servant grinding colors in the corner. The woman poses just beyond his canvas and cannot see her likeness, her less than mirror image coming to life beneath his hand. He has rendered her homely, so unlike the woman we see in this scene, dressed in late-century fashion, a chiqueador — mark of beauty in the shape of a crescent moon — affixed to her temple. If I say his painting is unfinished, that he has yet to make her beautiful, to match the elegant sweep of her hair, the graceful tilt of her head, has yet to adorn her dress with lace and trim, it is only one way to see it. You might see, instead, that the artist — perhaps to show his own skill — has made the father a dilettante, incapable of capturing his wife's beauty. Or, that he cannot see it: his mind's eye reducing herto what he's made as if to reveal the illusion immanent in her flesh. If you consider the century's mythology of the body — that a dark spot marked the genitals of anyone with African blood — you might see how the black moon on her white face recalls it: the roseta she passes to her child marking him torna atrás. If I tell you such terms were born in the Enlightenment's hallowed rooms, that the wages of empire is myopia, you might see the father's vision as desire embodied in paint, this rendering of his wife born of need to see himself as architect of Truth, benevolent patriarch, father of uplift ordering his domain. And you might see why, to understand my father, I look again and again at this painting: how it is that a man could love — and so diminish what he loves.